A popular question that we often get asked and I’m afraid the answer isn’t a simple one. The truth is, the UK probably could reach its climate targets without wind power but it would come at a higher financial and environmental cost. It would also take a lot longer.
In 2008, the UK Government passed the Climate Change Act which set legally binding targets to tackle the dangers of climate change. The long-term target is for an 80% CO2 reduction by 2050.
The independent Committee on Climate Change has found that ‘onshore wind is likely to be one of the cheapest low-carbon options.’ (see page 25 here.)
Renewables aside, alternative low carbon options are nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS is where CO2 from large sources like fossil fuel power plants is captured, removed and safely stored where it will not enter the atmosphere (often deep underground in depleted oil and gas reservoirs offshore). This is new technology, as yet unproven – and costly – at the industrial scale.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has outlined its most cost effective scenario for reaching the target of an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. This combines the use of nuclear, renewable energy and CCS.
There is a risk with this scenario that nuclear and CCS won’t deliver as expected. What happens if this is the case? The good news is that it’s still possible to meet the target but it would, of course, mean greater reliance on renewables. Have a look at DECC’s renewable energy road map for a bit more detail.
Friends of the Earth has also created a scenario that doesn’t rely on nuclear or CCS, see it here. This relies more on energy savings and renewables – but not on biomass imports for burning in power stations. So it’s a realistic and green scenario from our point of view.
So, whilst it might be possible to meet our carbon targets without wind power, it features strongly in a lowest cost scenario, easiest to deploy at speed and is absolutely essential in a ‘green’ energy portfolio.
It is vital that the UK continues to support investment in onshore and offshore wind, to keep costs down and ensure the UK has a range of technologies available to keep the lights on. With the future of nuclear and CCS uncertain and biomass power stations already outstripping sustainable feedstock supplies, it would be crazy to take wind power out of the future of the energy mix.
It would be great to get your view on this, do you think wind power is necessary to meeting our climate targets?
The Guardian has published an article on the effects of windfarms on birds that despite a slightly unfortunate headline presents an excellent overview of recently published research by the RSPB (see the full research paper.)
The study focused on upland windfarm sites in Scotland and the North of England, and shows that windfarms can have some quite different impacts on some of the species that occur on these sites, particularly during construction. For example, the study found that populations of skylark and stonechat increased but populations of snipe and curlew reduced during windfarm construction. It was also found that, while populations of some species recovered after construction, others – particularly Curlew - did not seem to recover during the study period.
The study provides further evidence to highlight the importance of siting windfarms away from sites with sensitive species. RSPB will continue to work with the windfarm industry and the UK authorities to ensure that renewable energy, including windfarms, can be developed without harming the UK’s wildlife. Our experience shows that, through careful siting and design and good construction practice, windfarms can be developed without causing significant conservation concerns.
We have all seen stationary wind turbines on a calm day, and even on some very windy days. It’s a fact that wind farms only produce about a quarter to a third of the electricity that they would if wind speeds were ideal at all times and no maintenance was ever necessary. However this does not mean wind farms do not make a significant contribution to electricity supplies. It is rare for the wind to stop blowing across the whole country, so even when one wind farm is not producing, others may be operating at full capacity.
Before a wind farm is built the average wind speeds for the site are measured. The developers would not go ahead if a significant amount of electricity could not be generated and sold. Fortunately for the UK, we have some of the best wind power resources in Europe. Wind now provides more electricity than hydro power in Scotland - in 2011 it supplied around 18% of the amount of electricity consumed. Five years earlier the figure was just 5%. More details are available here.
If a wind turbine or power station operates at full capacity all day every day, its ‘load factor’ is 100%. Because wind speeds vary, the average load factor for UK wind farms in 2009 was 27%. This may sound low, but it is worth noting that even fossil fuel burning power stations and nuclear power do not operate at full capacity all of the time; they need maintenance and they have to respond to electricity demand. Some coal fired power stations are operated for restricted hours to limit the pollution they cause. The ‘load factor’ for coal-fired power stations in 2009 was 39%, for gas-fired power stations it was 63% and for nuclear it was 66%. More details are available here on page 123.
So next time you see a wind turbine sitting idle, don’t assume the wind farm is not effective at generating electricity.
What are your thoughts?